Poet, activist, dharma student Allen Ginsberg went to China in the winter of 1984–85 to teach American Beat-era poetry to Chinese university students. This conversation took place in North Beach, San Francisco, in late March two weeks after Allen had returned from China. Jack Kornfield, Lee Chenoweth and Wes Nisker took part in the discussions. A book of Allen Ginsberg’s collected poetry was published last winter by Harper & Row, titled Collected Poems, 1947–1980.
[The back page of this issue of Inquiring Mind featured a previously unpublished poem, “Improvisation in Beijing.” It is now available in Ginsberg’s Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems, 1986-1992.]
Inquiring Mind: How long were you in China?
Allen Ginsberg: Two and a half months. My big ambition was to go and sit in China. I set a good example in that; I hardly did it.
IM: Is anybody practicing sitting meditation in China?
AG: There are some. There is a temple in Beijing that I went to with Gary Snyder when he was there. It was closed and then I went back myself later. It’s the headquarters of the Chinese Buddhist Association and also a practicing, teaching, Ch’an school. There are branches in Nanjing and other places where they have some preliminary schools in sitting meditation.
IM: And the government allows them to continue . . . ?
AG: Yes, but controls it. I heard that the guys who were running it were government functionaries who didn’t even sit and weren’t interested in it. It was just a job. And that the old survivors, whoever they were, were very quiet and were in the back. You could get to talk to them if you had some way of introducing yourself. But they were sort of retiring, and didn’t want to get into trouble. I talked to some of the directors who were quite learned and seemed to know what they were doing as far as sitting. At least there is a Chinese Buddhist Association, and they’ve reconstructed a lot of temples that were destroyed or vandalized in the tourist cities. But going into Baoding, which is a non-tourist city where I spent almost a month, there wasn’t one single temple or one single visible Buddhist meditator in any direction in a province of fifty million people, a province that at one time had been somewhat of a center, before 1949.
IM: So the reconstruction of the temples was for the tourists?
AG: Yes, build tourist temples up to save face. Because they have realized that they did the wrong thing. It wasn’t just Buddhist temples, it was the Taoist, Confucian and Buddhist temples. Almost all of them were vandalized throughout China. The week I left I saw in China Daily, which is the official English language newspaper, an announcement that two hundred tons of damaged statues were returned to a delegation of Tibetans. Wherever we went, except for the giant Tibetan temple compound in Beijing, which was left alone and protected by the army for some political reason at the time, all the other temples we went to were bare walls. Like, we’d go into the Tibetan temple, and maybe one or two others I saw that hadn’t been disturbed, and it’s crowded with dust, antiques and artifacts of a thousand years with statues intact, painting on the walls, and everything, trinkets and doodads and gods and goddesses. Whereas in almost all the other temples the walls are bare, because everything had been taken out and burned or vandalized or thrown into warehouses.
IM: Did you feel that the spiritual cultures had gone underground in any way?
AG: No. You see it was such a holocaust of McCarthyism that nobody wanted to have anything to do with the practices of the past. I don’t have the history straight, but the gossip I heard, not reading, but just from piecing together talk-talk, on the part of people who were able to talk freely and had quite lively minds one-to-one, but who wouldn’t talk in the presence of other people; this is the way I heard it. Mao won the revolution in ’49. By ’53, I understand, he’d been accused of killing too many people, twenty million, and he was criticized for it. Then there were a series of steps, like the Great Leap Forward, which was intended to decouple Chinese industry from dependence on hyper-mechanization, centralization, bureaucracy, Russia and the outside world. That resulted in a fantastic rise in the production of iron in the backyards, but a neglect of the countryside, so millions starved. Then it turned out that the iron that was made was useless because it wasn’t done with any high-grade quality control.
So the projects of the Great Leap Forward—except for the big dams that were made, which involved ant-like communal giant urges—the whole thing was a flop, except for a few major earth-moving projects. Then Mao was criticized for that, and he got increasingly paranoid about criticism and began an anti-rightist campaign. It was against the bourgeois stinkers, and that was the terminology. Real personal insult—you’re a stinker! But it was actually chopping off the heads of the people who criticized Mao and the Party. Then there was a Hundred Flowers, “let a hundred flowers bloom,” a period of criticism and contending schools of thought that lasted exactly six weeks. I had thought that was something that went on a year or so. It was June to mid-July. And then as soon as everybody spoke up there was such a torrent of criticism of Mao personally that he cracked down and sent all the critics off to shovel night soil in the provinces. By that time he had all of China waking up in the morning and saluting him, with his picture on the wall with a little red book, and if you weren’t eager enough to do that you might be reported. Everybody was gossiping, it was like a super McCarthyism.
Then by 1966 there was so much opposition to his imperial government, he was just like an emperor, that he did something that I had never realized, nor do I think the leftists in America realized, he dissolved the Communist party. He dismantled the formal structure of communism, called out the Red Guard, and that was the Cultural Revolution. He called out the high school kids from twelve to twenty to attack the Communist Party which was criticizing him. He called out these kids, who went out on the streets armed with wooden swords and began kicking elderly professors to death in the street, and invading the temples and scrawling signs on them like, “Down with everything old.” It was a giant campaign against the Four Olds: old things, old customs, old thoughts and old objects. It was sort of like an extreme of what you had here in the ’60s, history has ended, now is the new man, new consciousness—except taken literally there, like the rebellions at Columbia or the universities but totally let loose, with the government giving the kids weapons. This is from ’66 to ’68. The result was that every single intellectual in China got into the soup, one way or another. Anybody who had a letter from abroad, who had studied abroad, who knew a foreign language, had a foreign book, was put on trial and interrogated. Industrial production went down 80 percent because people were going into these Alcoholics-Anonymous-type tea sessions, group therapy sessions for twelve hours a day to see who was more radical and more communist. Meanwhile, they would rush into people’s houses and say, “We have a list of everything you have in this house. You have an old tea cup belonging to your grandmother with a stork on it which is a Taoist symbol of longevity, and we’re going to take that and smash it.” Crash! So two thousand years of Chinese history was destroyed. Nearly every high school library in China was burned, because it was an anti-intellectual campaign as well. Then finally, it got so bad and chaotic by ’68 or so, that Mao ordered out another group called the Rebels, who were people who had been persecuted by the Red Guard, and he sent the Rebels to fight the Red Guard! Then finally the upshot was, in the early ’70s Mao ordered the Red Guard into the country.
What finally happened in 1976 was Mao died, leaving this chaos. The one hero through it all was Chou En-Lai, who had protected some monasteries and university libraries as national treasures. When he died the Gang of Four, as they called them, now Mao’s inheritors, tried to downplay Chou En-Lai’s funeral, saying it was not important. So the climactic thing was that a million people came out spontaneously to Tian’anmen Square in Beijing reading poems and elegies to Chou En-Lai, as a kind of protest. So that was the beginning of the end. The army moved in and removed the Gang of Four. That was a precipitating moment, the great riot in Tian’anmen Square when Chou En-Lai’s funeral was celebrated by the people themselves. Then everybody began coming out of what was really a total 1984 nightmare, a nightmare so bad that even the people on Taiwan who are totally anticommunist, and the people here in Chinatown who read Chinese, didn’t know how bad it was because everybody was so scared they were afraid to talk when they got out of China for fear that some rumor of what they said would get back to their home town village, and their family would be persecuted. Meanwhile in the 1960s during this time, the American left was carrying big pictures of Mao around. That was the same moment Mao was kicking around almost all the intellectuals in China. Nobody you meet that’s literate doesn’t have a story about getting beaten up, or sent out to the countryside, or removed from their job, or losing their job.
IM: It was so difficult to understand how, after Mao died, all of a sudden China turned against him, the person whose picture was on every wall, whose name everybody was chanting . . . now it begins to make sense.
AG: His picture was on every wall and it got to a point where people were, in the morning, getting up and doing salutations to the messiah with a bible (a little red book) and with a heaven (the future communist world) and confession—the whole thing was a complete religion, a complete total systematic takeover of everybody’s brain, out of fear. That’s the composite gossip story that I heard, and it’s probably inaccurate here and there. In China it’s called “road news.” It’s the gossip, the truth about what’s happening that’s passed along through word of mouth.
IM: In the last year or so China has begun opening up much more to the West. What kind of effect do you think that will have?
AG: It’s too early to tell. They want to catch up with the rest of the world technologically. At the same time they don’t want to be drowned in imitation of Western technology so they’re very uncertain what they’re supposed to do now. It’s very interesting, because their uncertainty is one hundred percent intelligent and human. They’re facing the big problem that everybody’s facing—what do you do with the modem world? How far do you go, how far do you make a noise, what’s right and what’s wrong, what kind of buildings, what kind of architecture? They’re very consciously worried about it. They don’t want to lose what little Chinese culture is left. At the same time they realize they’ve already lost a lot, through a different kind of homogenization, ideologically.
IM: Did you sense that there has been any new flowering of literature or poetry in the last few years?
AG: Yes. There’s a whole new literature of the scar. It’s allowable now to write literature of the scar, the wounds, it’s like the Russian Solzhenitsyn literature. It’s allowable to write, within limits—a limit being that you cannot question the territorial integrity of China ,or the basic rightness of socialism, nor the basic integrity of the Communist Party, or the basic integrity of the present leadership—but you can question the basic integrity of the past leadership up to 30 percent. Or maybe 40 percent depending on the month or the year. Maybe sooner or later it will be 70 percent “Mao is bad” and 30 percent good. But at present it is 70 percent good and 30 percent bad.
IM: How do you know when you’ve crossed the line?
AG: That’s exactly the point. So the question is, is there a literature? And the answer is, how do you know when you’ve crossed the line? And the older people have the Hundred Flowers in mind, because they lived it. When we went there as a literary delegation, many of the wittier older people would say, “We are tired, we are old, we’ve been through a lot and we feel we haven’t done very much in our lives, and we’ve been a mess, ourselves. Here are these younger writers from the younger generation and you Americans here wanting to know what the Chinese think; we think we should let our younger people speak first.” So this young pretty girl in Shanghai said, “Well, when I grew up I saw a few movies and I saw Gregory Peck. I fell in love with Gregory Peck and I would see all of his movies, but then the Cultural Revolution came and we couldn’t see any more movies, and I always dreamed during the Cultural Revolution that someday I’d be able to see Gregory Peck movies again. And so I want to read you a poem I have written to Gregory Peck. (Laughter) See, that would be wild for these older people because what that meant was the acceptability of romantic ideas and frivolity of pleasure in Western culture. That was so forbidden, you could be kicked to death in the street for saying that you like Gregory Peck, a bourgeois stinker, twelve years ago. But now they’ve got to like Gregory Peck because they’re opening up to the West. English is the main language, their best relations are with America, they dig America as being technologically most advanced. All the students want to study English and absorb Western culture from Gregory Peck to Kerouac. Kerouac is considered a big hero. The official American literature textbook, edited in Chinese, with the English text, includes fifty pages of On the Road. Every Chinese junior, senior and graduate student will study that and a piece of Executioner’s Song. Howl is translated. Gary Snyder and I are the most famous Western poets to the younger Chinese; we’re the ones that they know about.
IM: Do they recognize you as anti-establishment, revolutionary voices in America?
AG: Oh, yes. They see us as the opponents of American materialism, opponents of the Vietnam war and opponents of capitalist excesses, but still working within the high-tech capitalistic society and so, intelligent people who know our way around in the difficulties of the twentieth-century hyper-industrialized landscape. For them we were very valuable.
IM: How do they relate to the spiritual dimensions in your writing?
AG: They were puzzled by the Buddhist references. They think that may be some naive thing. So what I did, finally, as part of my teaching Gary Snyder, I taught my class how to sit. I think the historical role of the American generation will be to bring Sowa Ch’an dharma back to China. (Laughter) Actually.
IM: Wasn’t it Joyce who said, “The West will shake the East awake, and ye shall have night for morn. . . .” That’s what’s happening now with Theravada Buddhist meditation in some parts of Southeast Asia. It’s being reintroduced by Westerners.
AG: Yes, that’s very interesting. What Mao did was to introduce Western Marxist religion to replace Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. It covered as much territory mentally as a religion and as a social organization. Now that has collapsed, and there’s total disillusionment with both the old and new religion. So maybe the role of Westerners will be to reintroduce the essential, active, muscular form of meditation to China.
IM: Hopefully the Chinese won’t blindly replace their socialist materialism with our capitalist materialism. . . .
AG: Yes. And the one thing that would possibly have made their socialism work, was the thing that they attempted to exterminate, which was the bodhisattva practice, the Buddhist practice of awareness and mindfulness, care, consideration and sympathy. The one glue that actually could have made their communism possible was precisely the nerve center that they hit, in their blindness.